The book of Hebrews, which I hope to preach through in 2014, has been read by billions of people. Yet it was most likely written for a floundering house church of Jewish believers comprised of 15-20 people. Indeed, it was sent as a written sermon, a “word of exhortation” (Hebrews 13:22) to be read out loud since its unidentified author was not able to be with them in person (13:19). The sermon was an exhortation–a word of urging and warning–because this group of Jesus-followers was beginning to retreat from the public square. Their beliefs about Jesus were not culturally accepted by most Jews and Greeks and they had already suffered significantly for their faith. They were losing steam, becoming spiritually lethargic, and gradually meeting less and less. Tired from all the struggle, they were drifting away from their faith in Jesus.
If you were tasked to deliver a sermon to this house church, what would you say? How would you encourage, challenge, warn, and confront?
The tack the preacher of this sermon chooses is very instructive to us as we think not only about our faithfulness to Jesus but also about the role of teaching and theology in the church. In short, because God had spoken finally and climactically by his Son (1:2) and because this church had become “dull of hearing” (5:11), this sermon calls the church to listen again to what God has said through the life, teachings, death, resurrection, and promises of Jesus. A two-word summary of the entire sermon comes in Hebrews 3:1–“consider Jesus.” The Greek word for “consider” means to look at in a reflective manner, consider, contemplate, think about carefully, and envisage. In short, the preacher assumed that if these believers were drifting away from Jesus it was because they did not “get” Jesus anymore. They needed to pay attention again.
Commentator William Lane describes the role of Christology (the study of Christ) in the sermon:
“The events that clustered about Jesus in the course of his ministry prompted the insistent question, ‘Who is this man?’ It was his death on the cross and his resurrection on the third day, however, that created the demand for sustained and profound reflection upon that question. It is safe to say that if it had not been for his resurrection, Jesus of Nazareth would have been reduced to a line in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, as were other prophets and revolutionaries of the period. He might have been remembered as a popular teacher or as a disturbing presence in Galilee or Jerusalem, but there would have been no enduring significance to his life and death. Many persons had been crucified. Through reflection on the Easter-event, it was recognized that God had spoken his definitive word and had acted with decisive finality for the redemption of the human family through Jesus.
“Christology in Hebrews is pastoral response to crisis. The failure of nerve on the part of the community addressed, evidenced by the parenetic [persuasive] warning sections, occurred because of an inadequate christology, an inadequacy the writer is endeavoring to address in the expositional sections of the discourse. The laxity against which the writer is striving in the series of exhortations he directs to his audience results at least partly from a deficiency he attempts to remedy in the development of his theology. To be more precise, the readers’ lethargy derives from their failure to grasp the full significance of Christ. They were prepared to abandon their confession because they had lost the realization of its significance.” (William L. Lane, Hebrews 1–8, Word Biblical Commentary)
This dense, powerful sermon gives a sustained meditation on Jesus because that is precisely what the church needed to endure sufferings for Jesus with joy. Though we know little of the sufferings they faced, we need nothing less in our day when our culture grows increasingly intolerant of Jesus’ claims to exclusivity for salvation and authority over all of life. We will need more courage, conviction, and steadfastness in the years to come, and hearing again the epic message of who Jesus is and what he has accomplished is the fuel we need for such times.
God willing, we will introduce some of these themes about Jesus during the Advent season then dive into this sermon in 2014. May our heightened attention to Jesus embolden us for radical love for one another, boldness in our public witness to Christ, and a willingness to follow Jesus into sufferings along the way.